One of my earliest memories after moving to Germany was when I spotted a waxy green coconut in the grocery store. I was surprised—coconuts, in my mind, were reserved for tropical places submerged in an endless summer, places that buzzed with mosquitoes and perpetually smelled of sea salt, places where people not only relished but relied on the fruit’s sweet nectar to help them remain cool and calm in the sweltering climate. When I was growing up, coconuts were enigmatic. To find them required special trips to “special” places and seeing them in a supermarket chain in central Europe served to both confuse and dazzle me, making me wonder: Where does our food actually come from?
Where Has Your Food Been?
A closer look at where our food comes from
According to a 2016 study done by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, around 70% of worldwide food supplies cross at least one national border before landing on a plate. The supermarket, once limited to the seasonal yield of local farmers, now teems with a variety of foreign delicacies. Walk into any grocery store, any day of the year, and it’s not uncommon to find crates of cucumbers perched next to half a dozen varieties of cabbage and mushrooms—and not so far away from those you can find boxes of gooseberries, kiwis, and avocados. With such an extensive selection available to us year-round, it’s easy to forget that each one of these items is part of a food chain, one that most likely began in another part of the world. Look closely at the labels and you can see that your apple is from Argentina, your banana from the Dominican Republic.
We now have more knowledge on food than ever before, and we’ve become more conscious consumers as a result, reaching for items labeled organic or free-range rather than opting for highly processed foods. But, despite knowing the nutritional and environmental benefits of eating locally and seasonally, our grocery stores reveal a different and harrowing truth about today’s food industry: Long-distance travel seems to be the standard when it comes to our food.
A brief history of the global food supply chain
Transnational agricultural trade has been around for centuries with the earliest accounts dating back to Ancient Rome. Until the 20th century, only non-perishable and preserved foods were traded. This meant perishables, like meat and milk, were purchased locally. The advent of onboard refrigeration in the early 20th century revolutionized the way we move food. Perishables were now not only sustainable locally, but could also be moved around to meet certain demands. Meat, which was abundant in South America, could now travel to northern Europe where it was scarce.
Merge onboard refrigeration with a growing demand and population, and we wind up with pressure for farmers to produce more crops. As agricultural technology began to improve, farmers would produce higher yields that were also weather and pest resistant, resulting in an industrialized food system that began to favor quantity over quality and, more often than not, a technique known as monocropping.
This evolution is what makes it possible for winter-loving fruits like blueberries to be grown in warmer climates and packages of Brazilian chicken thighs to find a home in Macau.
How fresh is our food?
It’s not easy to follow our food from field to plate. Some foods are labelled with the country of origin, but the reality is that most of our foods undergo some level of processing in order to make it safer to eat—which can add more, unlabelled, pit stops for our food. For example, a pollock could be caught in the United States, only to be sent to China to be processed, packaged, and exported back to the U.S., Japan, Brazil, or Europe for sale, where it may travel for another 1,000 miles in a cargo truck.
Of course, the freshness of our food depends on what type of food it is. Some perishables, like fruit, will be harvested before ripening and then gassed with preservatives to force ripening after transport. Processed and frozen foods like hamburger patties can contain ingredients from several dozen supply chains, and will have to travel back and forth from one country to another before finally hitting the frozen food aisle of your local supermarket.
Where you are in the world also plays a role. Regions naturally abundant with diverse crops, like Asia, southeastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and South America tend to import less, resulting in a diet saturated with seasonal and local ingredients. Isolated regions like North America, northern Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the Caribbean can’t cultivate as much as their populations demand, so foreign-grown crops provide a way for them to bridge the gap.
To give you a better idea of how far our food travels, we’ve broken up our food groups into sections and created illustrated maps detailing some of the world’s biggest importers and exporters. So, here’s to finding out how far our food travels!
Fruits & vegetables
Globalization increases the demand for year-round produce, making it even easier to forget that commonplace fruit, say bananas and oranges, can only grow in tropical and subtropical areas. Despite being a tropical fruit, bananas are the most exported and widely consumed fruit in the world. Ecuador has been the world’s largest exporter of bananas for years and you’ll likely find their fruits in the European Union, Russia, and the U.S.
Here in Germany, 45% of all fruits and vegetables at the grocery store were planted in foreign soil (most likely, France, Spain, Holland, or Italy) while in the United Kingdom this number jumps up to a whopping 90%. More than half of the fruits and a third of the vegetables in the U.S. are imported and a report from the U.S. Agriculture Department estimates these numbers will increase by 45% from 2016 to 2027, meaning most produce sold in the U.S. will soon be anything but domestic.
No matter where you are in the world, chances are you’ve consumed garlic from China. The country is responsible for 80% of global garlic, making it the world’s largest producer and exporter of garlic. As for garlic’s distant cousin, the onion, the Netherlands takes the title of top exporter. Incredibly enough, more than one-third of globally traded vegetables come from Holland.
Humans have consumed cow milk for centuries. As a dietary staple with wide-ranging byproducts (cheese, cream, butter, yogurt), it’s no wonder the dairy trade is a rich one. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, global milk production has increased by more than 50% in the last three decades, from 500 million tons to 798 million tons. Milk is the most consumed dairy product in the world and India is its largest producer, followed by the U.S., China, Pakistan, and Brazil.
When it comes to encapsulating a variety of dairy products, New Zealand takes the crown, exporting as much as $5.6 billion (USD) of milk powder, butter, cheese, and infant formula to places as far as Nigeria, Egypt, Bangladesh, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, and China.
Did you know more corn is produced than any other grain in the world? Its popularity doesn’t come unwarranted given its versatility. A staple in many cuisines, it’s used to feed livestock, sweeten processed foods, and produce ethanol fuel. When it comes to corn, the U.S. is king. More than 90 million acres of American land is dedicated to farming corn. Other large corn exporters include China, Brazil, Argentina, and India with the biggest markets being Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Egypt, and Spain.
Clocking in right behind corn is rice. About 75% of global rice exports come from India, Thailand, and Vietnam. Other cereal grains like wheat mostly come from Russia and the EU. Where does all the wheat go? Bread has been subsidized in Egypt since the 1952 revolution, making it the world’s largest importer and consumer of wheat.
According to the numbers, pork is the world’s favorite meat. Pig production has quadrupled in the last 50 years and we’re churning out not just more pigs, but heavier pigs. In 2017, the global pork output reached around 118 million tons. The EU, U.S., China, Brazil, and Russia are responsible for about 86% of the worldwide pork supply. Although China is home to several thousand pig farms, it’s also one of the biggest importers of pork, buying mostly from the U.S.
In addition to being a top pork exporter, the U.S. is the world’s largest poultry producer, accounting for 18% of the global exports, followed by China, Brazil, and Russia. And where there are chickens, there are also eggs. The global per capita consumption of eggs has doubled since the 1960s, and egg production has increased 150%, mainly in China and other countries in Asia.
Most of the beef in Brazil is consumed domestically, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a contender in global production. Just last year, the country sent a little more than 2 million tons of beef to China, Hong Kong, Egypt, and Chile, making it the world’s largest beef exporter. And this is all despite a rotten meat scandal in 2017 that suspended its trade with several international markets.
Food travels, so what?
Having a diverse assortment of food is convenient at best, and perhaps there’s something to be said about improved diets with better access to an array of nutrients, but the idea of food moving on a globalized scale is a bit worrisome—and not just to me. While some will argue that bulk-transported food produces less greenhouse gas emissions than buying local, it’s worth thinking about the long-term impacts of industrialized farming. To meet the demands of a transnational agribusiness, small farms are consolidating into giant enterprises, administering a plethora of herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers that aren’t just contaminating our food as it preserves, but also our soil and atmosphere. The Guardian reported that in the last 4 decades, we’ve destroyed over 30% of the earth’s arable land, and this number will only increase as the global demand for food climbs.
Despite this, we’re producing more food than ever before and we’re turning to monocultures to supply us. Monocultures are when we designate a large amount of land to cultivate just one crop. In our industrialized system, monocultures are preferred for their high yields of well-selling crops. So what does it mean for biodiversity when 75% of the world’s crop production is coming from the same 9 species? There are over 6,000 plant species in the world, and we are relying on just 9 to feed the 7.7 billion people on our planet. Relying on such a narrow group of species reduces the genetic variety needed to prevent our food from disease and pathogens. To put this into perspective, the 1840s Great Famine of Ireland happened because the diet of so much of the population relied solely on one or two types of potatoes.
On top of the environmental prices we have to pay, the condition and quality of our food is also jeopardized during its time in transit. Food can be contaminated at any point during production, processing, storage, transport, distribution, and preparation. The longer and more complicated the journey, the less likely we’re able to determine when and where pathogens enter our food. Food, something essential to life, is now so often affiliated with illness. Just last year, we saw a spike in the number of food investigations conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, making 2018 a record year for detected foodborne illnesses. North Americans were finding themselves in the hospital after eating lettuce, pistachios, turkey, eggs, cereal, boxed cake mix, and ground beef.
It's bad, but not all bad
In the midst of all this “bad” information, it’s easy to feel cynical, helpless, and defeated about today’s food industry. But, the good news is that there are tons of organizations working to make local food affordable and accessible, while also replenishing our environment. One of these is Slow Food. Founded in Italy in 1986 in response to the intended construction of a McDonalds near the Spanish Steps in Rome, the organization now spans a network of activists and chapters in over 150 countries, all fighting to preserve regional food traditions and protect local ecosystems.
Perhaps the most effective way of resisting industrialized farming is by cooking ourselves. If we cultivate and cook what’s seasonally and regionally available rather than administer chemicals to manipulate the agriculture, we can tackle many of the risks and dangers that our current global food supply chain possesses. As Michael Pollan writes in his book Cooked, “To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.”
We get it. Shopping for food in the supermarket is easy, convenient, and often the most affordable option. Changing what and how we eat may not transform the food industry but it’ll certainly influence it. Keep an in-season food calendar, buy more vegetables and less meat, choose raw rather than processed, and when you can, opt for what’s local over imports.
Food is the underlying pulse of our society: It’s what nourishes us and keeps us alive. If we continue at the rate we’re going, it’s not a stretch to think that food as we know it today could be unrecognizable in 30 years.
Published on April 11, 2019